Back at the Vanguard: The Art of the Trio, Volume 4 (excerpt)

I have a built in wariness towards the term ‘Renaissance’ applied to jazz music being played and recorded in recent years. A resurgence of interest, perhaps took place, and a ‘renaissance’ of record sales. But should we really paste on a normative historical term to a music that evades the burden of history? The act of improvisation is a perpetual birthing, making a rebirth unnecessary. ‘America’s classical music’ doesn’t work either. I identify an American ethos in the inception of jazz, if not in its present state (which hardly matters), but it has everything to do with not being classical.

Classical wasn’t called classical when it was being created. Someone came along after a point in time and lumped it all under one term, implying as well that an ending had taken place. This in turn implied that anything after that wasn’t valid. ‘Classical’ is a term ripe for deconstruction: It defines itself by a symbiotic Other that belatedly doesn’t rise to its stature. Its shaky legitimacy depends on a dreary nostaliga for a time when distinctions between the high arts and everything else were more clear. A person with this kind of backward longing is blind to their own irony. They feel that they missed an event that’s no longer possible, and with their head in these gray clouds, miss the present event. This lover of classics will always miss his art object in frustration, because art can’t achieve high or classical sainthood until at least a couple generations of posterity-testing. A dubious claim to jazz’s legitimacy is its own watery-eyed parody of this species: the drunk at the bar who talks through the set, whining about how jazz will never be like it was in the days when Coltrane played here, oblivious to the music taking place in front of him.

The American artistic ethos I would identify in jazz was, as a precondition, always quite removed from all that historical gloom, and still is. It involves a perpetual newness, and freedom from a history, that, with all its old-age authority, tells you that you’ll never be as great as it was, that you’re already defeated. America’s anti-legacy is pop. A seemingly innocent term, ‘pop’ implies a disposable aspect, an unableness to reveal any timeless truths. The highbrow tells us that pop’s non-profundity comes from a lack of autonomy in the criteria for its creation – integrity is sacrificed to make a buck. If we look under that assertion just a bit, there’s a darker suggestion: That classical music, as high art, has a moral authority over its subject. Many of us buy into this trope in spite of ourselves, and it can initially alienate the listener from the work. Much of what we call classical was conceived in a subversive spirit. It wasn’t as much concerned with autonomy from less noble interests of money and fame as it was freedom from the idea of any moral function in art at all. It’s an irony of history, with its shifting perspectives, that classical music so often denotes a dominating, rule-making presence.

Classical music, pragmatically speaking, was often the pop music of its own day. Pop, since it earned its own term, has often proved to be capable of staying power, not so disposable. Classical and pop as terms tell us nothing definitive about the aesthetic success or failure of the music they refer to. It’s nobody’s fault. Words have a peculiar penchant for deflating the sentiment out of any cognition, especially that of music. Language’s precondition is its own hierarchic relation to whatever it’s attempting to name. It wins a phony victory in the very act of its failure, serving us a metaphor that’s limited at best, arriving too late. Music is often understood as a way of speaking in the abstract, having the best of both worlds as it were. Understanding music as a kind of utopian language is, alas, another trope of language, contingent on its very rules. ‘Classical’ and ‘pop’ refer more to the supposed life expectancy, and less to the content, of the actual music. They are often failed prophecies: What was initially called classic reveals itself as a pop anachronism; what was conceived as pop cheats its origins and wins the bid for immortality.

I suspect that the attraction of jazz is that it ideally seeks to inhabit the best part of both of these worlds, and, brazenly, moves beyond their limitations. Jazz inherits the Grand Narrative gestures of the classical legacy, in its commitment to giving the listener an experience that will enrich their lives permanently through the rigour of its craft, the organic integrity of its shape and form. Yet it out-pops pop in its quick-willed active creation, which takes place in the improvisation. Jazz musicians want to make the earth move now, they don’t want to interpret how someone else did it, and be told they’re wrong. Again, there’s something initially American in that project: After a thorough ransacking, a gleeful egg-tossing at the entire rule-list of Occidental music, in favor of a hit or miss attempt at a kind of quick-fix transcendence, to be felt here and now, for the first (and maybe last) time. This is what I love about jazz more than anything the spirit in which it’s created.

A Renaissance means we already have to go to the museum to witness jazz’s ‘Antiquity,’ which is what so much concert programming feels like these days. The listener is treated like a tourist, while curator-musicians guide them through specific corridors of jazz history. To me, that smells of bad faith. Perhaps it’s an American self-conscious attempt to ascribe a European legitimacy on jazz, the legitimacy of something already dead and enshrined under glass. If we’re in a Renaissance, when exactly were the Dark Ages? The unspoken implication, of course, is the seventies, a time when jazz succumbed to ‘lower’ influences like rock’n’roll, and infected itself with electric instruments. What jazz in fact was doing was what it always had done: Taking leads from the pop music of its day, and re-animating the stylistic garment into something transfigured, by the force of its composition and improvisation. This dark ages subtext perpetuates another misreading of jazz’s short-lived history in the making: That acoustic music simply stopped until its supposed renaissance. Nothing could be less true, but this falsehood created a sort of lost generation of musicians, and again revealed the essentially media-hyped nature of jazz’s phony renaissance. One could easily have had the impression that jazz was a music played exclusively by the very young and very old. Thankfully, it seems like we’re emerging from this condition, less indicative of musical quality, than of the general fetishistic feeding frenzy of the media on Youth, the commodity. As a jazz musician of my generation , I have no pretense that the music presented here is part of some ‘return’ to the real shit, because it’s piano trio, because it’s acoustic music. The Renaissance misconception is limiting to jazz because it suggests that it already played itself out. It gives rise to a tired question like, “Can anything still be done with piano trio?” False hope leads to its flipside, a backlash of cynicism, and I wouldn’t ever attempt to answer to either sentiment. An endgame attitude towards jazz gives us a premature, peanut-sized parody of the entire western tradition in art. There’s the familiar defeatist implication that the music degenerates over time, with a kind of Faustian inevitability, until it can be redeemed, which presumably is taking place now. Jazz never lost itself, so a redemption isn’t necessary. The prelapsarian myth of art as a fallen thing from some earlier grace-state is a vestige of high art criticism that jazz need not willfully inherit. The Fall myth is usually less about art than it is a stapled on projection, a misplaced anxiety about the mortality of the culture in which that art is created, which is in itself another evasion, fear of one’s own mortality.

The same American attitude made two radically different genres possible, that are certainly no longer exclusively American: really bad pop and really great jazz. It’s a flippping-the-bird at the whole notion of mortality. Maybe that’s partially the no-fear attitude of a young culture. Hegel prophesied a death of art; in his old-school terms, Coltrane and the Spice Girls start after that end in open-ended regions that have come to be called postmodern. They don’t aspire to a lineage that will play itself out. Lineage as an idea played itself out, and willed its own critical death. We’re now in a swamp of relativism artwise, which is fine with me, because the critical focus can be placed on the aesthetic. Pop engages in a kind of harmless nihilism when it offers up a reconstituted nothingness that dies as quickly as a mosquito (if it was ever alive). Jazz, in its most inspired moments, makes a kind of exalted fuck you to mortality in the flux of its improvisations. Jazz improvisation isn’t born out of any previous text, which differentiates it from the interpretive art of classical performance. Music texts are the Prospero’s Books of classical music. They insure a certain immortality. Part of the brazen quality of a music that puts improvisation at its center is that it simply did not care enough to write a text, and that not caring became its strength. I locate my personal aesthetic for jazz in that strength: It basks in the human capability to grab at the transcendental with immediacy, free of the usual trial and error of art.

Often, one says of a work by Beethoven, “Not one note could be changed.” It’s a retrospective feeling, a comment on the music’s rich formal power. It’s critically useless, because no one’s going to change it. Nevertheless, when I listen to Miles on ‘Kind of Blue,’I say, “Not one note could be changed.” To figure out why a person feels that is a good project for jazz criticism, but first we need to unpack a stigma from improvisation: that it won’t yield something as formally profound as a written work. That’s born out of a simple ignorance, one that leads to a question often asked after the gig: “So like, were you guys just more or less ‘jamming out’?” A listener doesn’t need to know what chords, what structure, we’re blowing over, any more than they have to understand sonata-allegro form when they listen to a symphony, to dig the music. But it does help to know that there is a form there. There are lead-sheets, purposely limited texts that tell how and where to jump off. But jazz knew something from its beginning: Don’t depend on a text! I am quite sure that the precondition of the Coltrane Quartet of the sixties is that they absolutely could not have written out as inspiring a performance, note for note, ahead of time. This is an important distinction for an understanding of jazz. Improvisatory creation is not a medium that half-heartedly tries, but won’t rise up to, a written composition; on the contrary, it gives jazz its grandeur, which is a potential to eclipse written music in its performance. One might point out that classical music originally had its great improvisers. We know this from biographical accounts, for instance, of cutting contests between Beethoven and Hummel. But what’s kept Beethoven’s music in circulation is the compositions he committed to pen, and not his improvisation. Jazz’s canon is its recorded legacy, so much of which is improvised. To close I offer a scenario: If all the written music in the world suddenly burned up in a flash, who could do a gig the same night , regardless?

– Brad Mehldau, 1999